The minute I slammed shut the car door and began walking towards the main building I knew it was going to be one of those days – no reason, no rationale, Just a raw gut feeling that things were going to go wrong. I reached the front door and went inside, glad to be out of the early morning heat but more than a little anxious about what might be facing me.
The office was crowded, half a dozen people pushing into its tiny confines. The noise was high and shrill, like the senseless hubbub you get from the middle of a football crowd.
“What the hell’s going on?”
Jenny smiled at me and took hold of my arm. “End of shift hysteria, dear. They've driven us crazy this weekend.”
I raised my eyebrows in question. She drew me outside and we sat in the easy chairs in the hallway. Out here, at least, it was calm, away from the general confusion of people coming on and going off duty.
“Old Mrs. Rogers died on Saturday morning. I think that started them all off. Everybody knew it had to happen sooner or later, but it sort of released all that pent up emotion. Since then they've all been high as kites. In particular your friend May!”
I grinned. Old May was a particular favourite of mine. We weren’t supposed to have favourites but here, working so closely with the old people, it was impossible. May had broken her hip just a year or so ago and found it very hard to get around. Most of her time she spent in a wheelchair, yet to listen to her talk you’d have thought her as lively as a fourteen year old. Wherever there was trouble you could depend on May being present. Just like a big kid, really, I thought.
“Come on then,” I said. “What’s she done now?”
I laughed. “She’s what?”
"Found God. Well, not God exactly. It’s more like his hymns she’s found. She sings them – all day, all night, hymns at the top of her voice. Can you imagine what the rest of them feel about that?”
I considered it. Twenty elderly and infirm old people, each one an egotistical and self interested bundle of nerves? Yes, I could imagine, very easily, what they felt about it.
"I think I’d better take a look.”
I could hear May as soon as I reached the first landing. Her voice was old and cracked but it was surprisingly strident in the early morning air. I looked at my watch – it was still only 8.00am and already the heat was so intense you could almost touch it with your hand.
May was sitting propped up by pillows in her bed, a bright floral dressing gown wrapped around her frail body. She waved at me as I came into view but did not stop singing.
"Fight the good fight
With all your might.
Christ is your strength
And Christ the right!
Lay hold on life ..."
“Can’t you stop her?” demanded Kitty from the bed opposite. “She’s been singing since 6.00am this morning.”
Kitty was May’s room-mate, and she was far from happy. She stood beside her bed, the anger sweeping like a coiled fishing line around her face. Even as she spoke she was unable to contain her rage.
“Shut up!” she screamed at May. “Just shut up!”
May smiled with great beneficence and carefully turned her face to the wall.
"All things bright and beautiful,” she sang. “All creatures great and small!”
I crossed to her bed. “May? Can we have a word?”
May gazed at me, her eyes pale blue and piercing in
the small, lined face.
"All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all.”
I shrugged helplessly and turned towards Kitty. I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what to do.
“Come on Kitty,” I said at last. “Let’s go and have some breakfast.”
Over the next few days things became markedly worse. May continued to sing her hymns – at meal times, in the television lounge, in bed – anywhere, in fact, where she could be heard. She even sang when she was alone.
"Advanced senile dementia,” proclaimed Debbie, one of our nursing auxiliaries. “Had to come.”
I wasn’t so sure. Somehow I thought May knew exactly what she was doing. The Tuesday afternoon Bingo session turned into a near riot when May insisted on singing right through the whole performance.
“Thank God she didn’t win,” sighed Jenny. “That would have put the cap on it!”
Bath time quickly became unbearable. Like an opera singer or some ancient vaudeville star, May soon realized the tiny bathroom sent soaring echoes of her words around the whole house, She would sit here in the water, singing happily at the top of her voice. Soon the staff were threatening mutiny.
"If she carries on with that bloody singing,” stormed Debbie, “she can put herself into the Ambulift. I’m not doing it – that bathroom’s got an echo like Switzerland!”
Jenny smiled. “I’ve got a better idea. Next time you get her in the bath, just keep winding her down – screw her into the flaming plughole!”
“Bear with it,” I said. “It’s just a little bit of obsessional behaviour. She’ll soon be over it.”
The residents were outraged, unwilling and unable to tolerate her eccentricity. They had a point. There was no peace for anybody – wherever you went in the old building all you could hear was May’s voice -
"Hear the pennies dropping
Dropping as they fall ..."
"Nobody minds her singing,” stormed Kitty. “Just not all the time. Why can’t she go out into the garden to sing? And why’s it always got to be hymns? What’s wrong with “Tipperary" or “Apple Blossom Time"?”
"I'll see what I can do,” I promised.
All afternoon I sat trying to persuade May to be quiet. She simply shook her head, the white curls bouncing like summer surf, and carried on singing. Only once did I manage to get her to speak to me.
“Why, May?” I had asked for the umpteenth time. “Why keep singing?” She smiled, distantly, and stopped in mid tune. The peace was wonderful.
"I like music,” she said, suddenly.
I leapt onto her comment, wildly grasping at any little straw. “Then why don’t you listen to your radio. Lot’s of music on there.”
May was ready for me, however. “Because I like to sing.”
“But why hymns, May? You never got to church – why sing hymns?” She smiled serenely, with all the wisdom her 85 years could muster.
“Why should God have all the best tunes?”
I left her with her victory and wandered back to the office. The haunting, if somewhat flawed rendering of “There is a green hill far away” began to float down the stairs after me.
The residents were soon in a state of perpetual anger, hurling abuse at May and demanding our attention. May ignored them all. Defiant, determined, she kept concentrating on her eternal, endless singing.
"Do something,” Kitty demanded. “Anything you like, but just stop that awful noise."
We were hamstrung, all of us. What could we do? All day long May’s songs of an ancient, forgotten childhood kept battering at our ears and we were helpless. All of us were living on our nerve endings, jumping and twitching at the slightest problems. I finally realized things were bad when I found myself actually singing along with her one day.
“That’s it,” I told Jenny. “It’s gone far enough.”
"Just what are you going to do?”
I went home and thought about it. All evening I sat and pondered. Even searching through my small library of social work and psychology books provided no answer. I was stumped, totally out of my depth.
"You've got May on the brain,” my wife snarled as we climbed the stairs to bed. “You need a spot of aversion therapy!”
I literally leapt into the air. “That’s it! That’s the answer."
My wife looked at me as if I was demented, climbed into bed and went to sleep.
The following morning I called a residents' meeting. May was out in the garden, soaking up the July sunshine and loudly bellowing her version of “The Lord is My Shepherd.” I took great pains to make sure she stayed there, detailing Debbie to keep a close eye on her.
"I’ve found the answer,” I informed everyone. “The way to stop May’s singing.”
They looked at me sceptically.
"Go on,” said Kitty. “Let’s hear it.”
I explained what I had in mind. Everybody listened intently.
"It’s risky,” commented one old man. “But if it shuts her up it'll be worth it!”
"I don’t know,” said Kitty. “It’s going to be very noisy.”
“Whatever we do, it can’t be any worse than it is now,” snarled someone.
And so we agreed. We would give it a try. At 10.00 am promptly Jenny and I wheeled the record player from the day room into the main hall. Within moments it began to blast out Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” After a while that was followed by Harry Secombe and a strident version of “Bless This House.” The junior staff quailed before its onslaught but it was only just the beginning. In the next few hours we played everything from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to Pat Boone’s rendering of “The Old Rugged Cross.” The noise was deafening.
Jenny and most of the staff took to stuffing cotton wool into their ears while Kitty and one or two others simply switched off their hearing aids.
"If Heaven's going to be like this,” Kitty said, “I think I'll go the other way.”
All day long the music blasted out. After a while nobody bothered even answering the telephone – they’d never have heard a word, anyway.
May loved it. Her eyes gleaming, feet tapping in time to the music, she sat and beamed. At lunch she ate her meal to the accompaniment of “Amazing Grace.” By 9.00 everybody had thumping headaches and we were all vowing never to go to church again.
“We've got to keep on going,” I said. “As long as it takes – until she’s thoroughly sick of hymns.”
Jenny grimaced and put on another record.
Early the following morning we began again. Seven thirty saw the advent of “Love’s Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” Everybody cringed.
"Lovely,” said May. “My favourite.”
It took three days. Three days of non-stop hymns. Hymns old, hymns new, from Gospel bands and soul singers, to massed choirs. In the end we were all punch drunk and near to giving up.
"I don’t know how much longer I can take this,” said Jenny as we prepared the afternoon's selection of records.
“She can’t last much longer,” I said. “It'll all be over soon.
At that moment May’s wheelchair came silently in from the garden, through the large French windows. May looked tired, her eyes half closed and dim.
"Do me a favour, dears?” she sighed. “Don’t play any more, I’m getting a little tired of hymns."
Victory at last! We had won. With great relief we started putting away the records. May watched us in silence.
"I’m going for a little nap,” she said, at last. “See you later, dears!”
"I'll take you to the lift,” smiled Jenny.
I watched them go, with a heavy heart. Poor May seemed ten years older. The place was beautifully silent, mind you, like the calm after a storm. All over the house there lay an almost tangible sense of tolerance and relaxation. And yet I was sad, sad for May. All she had wanted was a little attention, a little something for herself – no matter what we thought we were giving her, it was clearly not enough.
Later that afternoon I looked in on her. She was fast asleep on her bed, her old face slack and calm with the peace which only sleep can bring. She seemed at ease.
"Isn’t it nice to have a bit of quiet again?” said Kitty.
I was just about to go off duty when Jenny appeared suddenly at the office door. Her hair was wild and unkempt and I knew something was wrong.
"Paul! You’d better come quickly. It’s May!”
We went up the stairs two at a time. When I reached May’s room Kitty was standing by the door, babbling hysterically.
“That’s it! I’ve had enough,” she shouted. “I want to change my room. I can’t stay here a moment longer!”
I took her by the arm. “Why love? What’s wrong?”
She did not answer but from inside the room I heard May’s voice, hard and strident in the quiet air. From somewhere deep inside her she had dredged up the memory of Sunday School recitations and now she was declaiming purposefully to the empty room.
If I should die think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England . .
I shook my head in disbelief. May was sitting on the edge of her bed, her face alive and vibrant once more. There was a far off gleam in her eyes.
“What is it?” asked Jenny.
"It’s Rupert Brooke. Poetry, Jenny. May’s discovered poetry!”
We stood there, listening. Jenny looked close to tears.
“What are we going to do?” she said.
I moved towards the stairs.
"Nothing,” I said. “Absolutely nothing! Unless you fancy buying a couple of dozen sets of ear plugs. I’m sure we could claim them off capitation.”
I went down to the ground floor, shaking my head and smiling. And the sound of May’s voice echoed around my ears, filling the old building.
"... dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.”
This feature: Carradice, P. (1985). The Hour of the Wolf. Surrey: Social Care Association. pp. 97-102